A new beginning for innovative pollution remediation: microplastics

- Ottawa, Ontario

Proliferation of plastic waste in rivers, lakes, estuaries and oceans is a major global challenge and threat to the environment, livelihoods and human health. With a plastic patch floating in the Pacific Ocean that is about 4 times the size of Newfoundland and Labrador, traces of plastic found in Arctic ice, and research showing that the average person could ingest about 5 grams of plastic each week, waiting any longer to address this critical issue is not an option.

For Dr. Vahid Pilechi, Researcher and Team Lead at the National Research Council of Canada's (NRC) Ocean, Coastal and River Engineering Research Centre and an NRC expert in pollution fate and transport modelling, our New Beginnings Initiative was the perfect opportunity to brainstorm potential solutions to the increasing presence of plastic in aquatic environments. Before joining the NRC, Dr. Pilechi conducted research in Canada and in Qatar on transportation of pollutants in rivers and coastal areas. Noticing a proliferation of scientific publications on plastic and its impacts, he wanted to see how he could apply the findings and experience from his previous research to the plastic problem.

Since plastic degrades into very small pieces called microplastics, it is very challenging to retrieve them all using existing filtration and water treatment systems. Without accurate information on how these microplastic particles behave and on where to find them, addressing this issue seemed nearly impossible, yet this did not discourage Dr. Pilechi.

Through the NRC's New Beginnings Initiative, Dr. Pilechi was able to explore a new line of research at the NRC. He demonstrated how numerical modelling and machine learning technology can be applied to this global problem by enabling the prediction of potential sources, pathways, and the fate of microplastics in aquatic environments.

"I enjoy the opportunity to think and solve problems, explore ideas, and be creative at the NRC. When we find a problem we can solve, we make connections with industries and universities and we work together in order to solve issues that affect us. The environment is one of the most precious things we have and we need to take care of it, for it to take care of us."

Dr. Pilechi

New Beginnings enabled Dr. Pilechi to validate the feasibility of adapting existing modelling techniques to study the fate and transport of microplastics in different water settings. Because of the Initiative, he was able to build a convincing project proposition and partner with other government departments, universities and industries to begin building a new tool that will support decision making by water resources managers and policy makers.

The opportunity he had to explore and test his innovative idea led to a broader initiative, now part of the NRC's Ocean program's pollution remediation research theme. Dr. Pilechi has brought together a multidisciplinary team including Senior Research Engineer Enda Murphy, Dr. Fabrice Berrué, Dr. Shan Zou, and Dr. Christophe Bescond from the NRC's Ocean, Coastal and River Engineering, Aquatic Crop Resource Development, Metrology, and Energy, Mining and Environment research centres. Several Canadian partners and collaborators such as Professor Majid Mohammadian from the University of Ottawa, Professor Parisa Ariya from the McGill University, Professor Saeid Homayouni from the Institut national de recherche scientifique (INRS), Dr. Shreyas Patankar and the Plastic Lab from Ocean Wise, Photon etc.'s team, and Dr. Dean Wenham from Ocean Diagnostics are also involved, contributing their skills and expertise towards addressing the microplastics challenges.

"The plastic problem needs attention and collaboration from all levels of societies. The NRC can provide leadership on science and technology innovation within our fields of expertise, but to solve the problem, we all need to work together. We also need to address the problem at the source, by better educating the general public to be mindful on how they use plastic in the first place."

Dr. Pilechi

Every year, projects led by NRC researchers and teams are helping to further innovative, exploratory research and development in a wide range of areas—from health, environment and agriculture, to aerospace and astronomy. The Ideation Fund gives NRC researchers and their external collaborators the opportunity to test their potentially transformative ideas through the New Beginnings and Small Teams initiatives.

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